Taiwan: Mask-wearing patients fainting in the street. Hundreds of fearful citizens lining cheek by jowl, at risk of infecting each other, in narrow hospital corridors as they wait to be treated by doctors in forbidding white hazmat suits. A fraught medic screaming in anguish.
Terrifying video clips on social media, reportedly posted by shocked citizens in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus that has swept China and infected at least 18 people in seven foreign countries, did not paint a picture of a government in control. In one clip, posted by Badiucao, a Chinese-Australian cartoonist, but which could not be independently verified and was reportedly deleted from the Weibo social media site, the sick were seen sitting next to three bodies covered in white sheets. Other footage showed makeshift tents in hospital car parks.
Workers driving excavators at the construction site of a field hospital in Wuhan, China, which was ordered to be built in 10 days to deal with the outbreak.Credit:Getty Images
After weeks of apparent delays in tackling the virus that first sprang from a Wuhan seafood market, the Chinese authorities locked down the city of 11 million citizens and put travel curbs on 13 other urban centres in Hubei province, corralling more than 40 million people.
It raised questions about why such extreme measures were necessary given that official figures of infections remained in the hundreds, and highlighted concerns about human rights and civil liberties. With government censors still scrubbing the internet, it left citizens afraid and in the dark.
Qingqing Chen, a local reporter, filed online a short report alongside pictures of barren shop shelves. She wrote: "After I spent few days in Hubei, I feel sad for local residents including my mum & dad, as lots of them have not realised that Wuhan Coronavirus is such a big public health crisis until January 22-23. This is not normal, as the first outbreak was mid-December."
A disinfection worker in Seoul, South Korea, spray anti-septic solution in a train amid rising public concerns over the spread of China’s Wuhan coronavirus.Credit:Getty Images
Even state media, normally known to parrot the Beijing line, offered a rare glimpse into the despair and chaos and an inkling that the authorities may be struggling to contain the outbreak.
The People's Daily, the official newspaper and news website of the Chinese Communist Party, posted a video of a reportedly cured patient happily flashing the peace sign alongside four hazmat-suit wearing medics. But the Global Times revealed that resources including testing kits and protective gear were urgently needed, and that 40 military doctors had been drafted in to help overstretched civilian medics.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said the emergency raised concerns about transparency. "From a medical and human rights perspective, it is essential that people can trust the information available," she said. "I have real concerns about people who are supposedly 'spreading rumours' being harassed by authorities, especially at a time people are concerned they are not getting accurate details."
Health experts "best equipped to sound the alarm about the coronavirus early" had been detained or their work stopped because they were not "within the Chinese state system", she claimed. "They are treated as anarchists instead."
The silencing of critics by an authoritarian regime that not only hides the truth from its population but often creates a culture of fear that stifles the flow of bad news, may offer some clues as to why the Wuhan crisis has seemingly spiralled out of control.
The first case was reported on December 8, with officials saying it was under control and treatable. Chinese police questioned eight people for "spreading rumours online". It was only as the disease spread to other cities that public denial ended and the government's unplanned rapid response kicked in.
By Saturday morning the official death toll stood at 41, with nearly 1000 infected. The victims so far have mainly been aged over 48, the vast majority much older and with existing health conditions, although one healthy man aged 36 is said to have died.
Two fatalities were reported outside Wuhan, one 2400 kilometres away in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang, which borders Russia and Mongolia.
However, disease experts from Imperial College, London, say the true figure in Wuhan alone could be 4000 and even as high as 9700.
State media also appeared to be preparing the public for a leap in the number of cases. Caixin, a Beijing media organisation, quoted Wuhan doctors as predicting "the number of people becoming infected with the new coronavirus may eventually exceed 6000".
Wuhan's rail, road and air links were sealed off on Thursday. By Friday, 14 cities in central Hubei province suspended public transport. Some shut down public venues and all 70,000 of the country's cinemas. Shanghai's Disneyland has been closed. Some outspoken doctors warned the measures were too little too late as the virus had already reached Asia, and even the US where two cases have been confirmed by Friday night.
"A bigger outbreak is certain," said Yi Guan, a Hong Kong based virologist who helped identify SARS in the 2003 outbreak that claimed at least 775 lives.
Yi, who returned from Wuhan just before the lockdown, said huge numbers of people would have already left ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, which began on Friday.
"We have passed through the 'golden period' for prevention and control," he told Caixin from his self-imposed quarantine. Others warned that lockdowns and travel could easily be circumvented by the elite. Zi Yang, a senior analyst in Singapore, said: "People with money and connections are going to make a run for it – and they'll probably be successful."
The lack of transparency over the spread of the disease, which can pass from human to human, has severe repercussions beyond mainland China.
Hong Kong has two confirmed cases but 236 patients under surveillance.
Asia was on high alert at airports amid an escalation in reported cases from South Korea to Thailand.
Taiwan said it would not permit entry to Wuhan residents, while the Philippines pledged to repatriate hundreds of Wuhan tourists.
Meanwhile, Boots stores in Edinburgh were said to have sold out of medical masks as fears spread that the virus may have reached Britain. Three patients were being tested for coronavirus in the Royal Infirmary. France confirmed at least three cases on Saturday.
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